Do you believe in God? And, if so, on what grounds? Believers employ a variety of arguments to support their religious truth claims, including heady philosophical propositions with impressive names like the “teleological” or “cosmological argument for the existence of God.”
Do you believe in God? And, if so, on what grounds?
Believers employ a variety of arguments to support their religious truth claims, including heady philosophical propositions with impressive names like the “teleological” or “cosmological argument for the existence of God.”
These arguments rely on technical language and follow a chain of tightly reasoned proofs. Some believers prefer less academic and more experiential evidence for God’s existence. They point to seemingly miraculous events in their own lives or in the lives of people they’ve known. Some claim that remarkable answers to prayer justify their belief in God. Others bear witness to the way the Bible speaks to them or the benefits they’ve derived from faith.
These arguments have their place and, taken together, their weight is considerable. But I’ve noticed that such proofs tend to comfort the convinced rather than convince the skeptical. And the skeptical are growing in number.
According to the 2009 American Religious Identification Survey, the number of people who claim “no religion” has doubled in the last 20 years. That is, in itself, a significant sociological trend. Of more concern to me, though, is the fact that 66 percent of people who claimed “no religion” on the survey identified themselves as “de-converts.”
De-converts are people who once believed in the existence of God but do so no longer. These people are generally immune to apologetic arguments, whether academic or experiential in nature.
The reason is clear: They once believed in God based on evidence that seemed reliable at the time –– their parents’ belief; their pastor’s claims; their Sunday school teacher’s lessons on creation. But that evidence has since been called into question, sometimes with good reason.
Their parents’ infallibility proved illusory. Their pastor’s moral failures were uncovered. Their college instructor –– smartest person they’ve ever known –– systematically destroyed the Sunday school teacher’s version of creation.
Can a de-convert be re-converted? It has happened. As a young man, the Oxford-educated thinker and writer A. N. Wilson found himself doubting the biblical Easter narrative. Though he had once pursued ordination in the Church of England, he later published a pamphlet titled “Against Religion” and declared himself an atheist.
Wilson was a harsh and cynical critic of religious belief in general, and Christianity in particular. For 30 years, he wrote attacks on the faith in newspapers, magazines and books. Then, in 2009, he startled the reading public with an announcement in the Daily Mail that he had been re-converted.
Though philosophical arguments clearly played a role in Wilson’s return to faith, it was the lives of his Christian friends and acquaintances that convinced him to turn to God. Wilson wrote: “My belief has come about in large measure because of the lives and examples of people I have known –– not the famous, not saints, but friends and relations...
“J. S. Bach believed the story, and set it to music. Most of the greatest writers and thinkers of the past 1,500 years have believed it. But an even stronger argument is the way that Christian faith transforms individual lives –– the lives of the men and women with whom you mingle on a daily basis, the man, woman or child next to you in church tomorrow morning.”
An authentic life, Wilson discovered, is the best proof. It renders the anti-God arguments of the critics null and void. An inauthentic life can, however, make them seem indisputable.
Shayne Looper is the pastor at the Lockwood Community Church in Coldwater, Mich. He can be reached at email@example.com.